LIKE many, the TUC was disappointed the Government decided to abolish much of the regional government agency infrastructure in the latest ‘bonfire of the quangos’.
As far as evidence could demonstrate, regional development agencies, especially One North East, which finally ceased to exist as an organisation last Friday, delivered a high performance against all of the criteria with which it was charged.
The regional Government office performed an informative and effective role, explaining and cohering Government policy at a local and regional level as well as proving a useful conduit of opinion back into government, in a quiet, considered manner.
The introduction of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), local clusters of private sector-led groups, involving public sector and education organisations, it is claimed, would be more effective in driving up public sector growth.
The comparable dearth of resources to support investment, lack of clout through statutory powers and, in most cases, the absence of any significant secretarial or administrative resource, meant that LEPs faced a difficult beginning.
Just two years in, the Department for Business, reflecting the Government’s anxiety to be seen to be responding to the continuing severe challenges in the economy, has decided that the time is right to take stock of how LEPs are performing.
It is, in my view, far too early to be holding LEPs to account in such a formal way. Whether or not there is agreement on the abolition of regional structures or support for these more local arrangements, the reality is that LEPs haven’t had the easiest of run-ins.
Very shortly after the notion that they would be established, LEPs were asked (although I’m not sure how practicable or meaningful it was) to take a view on Regional Growth Fund bids. This was a potentially spurious activity given that there was, in many cases, a complete lack of an agreed local economic strategy with which to assess RGF bids against, doing nothing to win early support for either initiative.
Then, perhaps more controversially, the LEPs, still barely established and with little capacity, were asked to determine the right basis for setting up Enterprise Zones, another key element of the Government’s economic strategy, followed by further wrangling over ‘growing places funding’.
There is a growing sense of urgency to secure improvements in growth and employment, certainly a view shared by the TUC. To scrutinise LEPs now, though, so soon into an under-resourced, overburdened existence, does seem a bit premature, somewhat unfair and unlikely to be very productive.
:: Kevin Rowan, regional secretary, Northern TUC